Mary Wolstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein
[Introduction by Diane Johnson] (Bantam Books, 1981)

I've all seen the movies (including the Andy Warhol version, notable for lots of skin, a gorgeous monster, and a fair amount of gore), the take-offs, the parodies (some of them unconscious), so I thought it was time I went back to the original, somehow never having actually read it before.

What brought Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to my attention again was a very interesting essay by Brian W. Aldiss. In the essay, included in The Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, he makes a compelling case for Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel. That started me thinking. Remembering the various versions and sequels, and the way that Frankenstein's monster has worked his way into the mythology of our time, it seemed that, while there was a great deal of substance to Aldiss' argument, there must be more to the novel itself.

Out of the plethora of editions of Mary Shelley's classic available, I picked the 1981 Bantam edition for reasons that are probably arbitrary, but were compelling at the time: it was $2.50 as a used bookstore. This is the 1831 version of Frankenstein (originally published in 1818, when Shelley was twenty years old), with Shelley's revisions and introduction. It includes as well an Introduction by Diane Johnson, which is itself fascinating, giving a good account of Mary Shelley's life and background and delving into many of the influences on the writer.

The genesis of Frankenstein is a well-known story: the Shelleys, along with Byron and other friends, were housebound in Switzerland by bad weather and spent the time reading ghost stories, finally coming up with the idea that each would write such a story. It seems that Mary Shelley's contribution was the only one completed.

The influences on Shelley, literary as well as others, are readily apparent. Johnson traces the history of the gothic novel from Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto of 1765 in a concise and very informative discussion. She also reminds us that Shelley's full title for her novel was Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, pointing up the influence of the Prometheus story (and please also note that at this time Byron was working on his poem of the same name, while Shelley's husband was reading the story in Aeschylus). Another very pertinent idea is John Milton's Satan, who was, as Johnson puts it, adopted by the romantic poets as an archetype. William Blake, as well, seemed strongly attracted to Milton's version. These two together seem key to me, since the monster's rationale for his rage and destructiveness is that his creator, Victor Frankenstein, abandoned him and he had met nothing but hatred and violence from men, although he approached them with an open heart and good intentions. So, too, the gods abandoned men and Prometheus was punished for helping them, and while Satan's motivations were perhaps not so pure, the emotional resonance with Frankenstein's monster (who, be it noted, is never given a name) is compelling. Both Satan and the monster were strong examples of the "outsider," a pose adopted by many of the romantics, particularly Byron. This leads naturally into the idea of the monster as "other," which can bring us to Freud on the one hand -- the monster is the id, the dark, repressed places of the psyche -- and on the other to the medieval Christian idea of the other (in other words, the monstrous) as providing part of the definition of our own identity.

The novel itself is structured as a series of letters from an explorer, Robert Walton, to his sister in England. Walton discovers Frankenstein in the sea north of Russia, pursuing his creation across the ice. Walton records Frankenstein's narrative, while Frankenstein in turn relays the monster's narrative, so that there are layers of reality expressed through different characters' points of view.

The idea of the other as representing a boundary for identity is one that Shelley has made part of the emotional context of the story. Frankenstein and his monster, while overtly defining themselves as enemies, are bound by a very deep shared identity, partly that of creator-creature, partly that of parent-child, and ultimately as parts of a single personality (Freud, again). The evil that the monster perpetrates, which at the same time leads to and grows from his own despair, is echoed by Frankenstein's guilt over creating the monster in the first place.

Frankly, I'm on the monster's side. Every moral decision that Frankenstein makes seems based, despite his protestations to the contrary, on distrust and selfishness, while the monster, by his own account, begins as an abandoned child and meets nothing but hardship and, ultimately, betrayal by his creator. His reaction may not be praiseworthy, but it is honest. The final scene, as the monster laments over Frankenstein's dead body and then disappears into the ice, is tremendously affecting -- the monster shows more humanity than Frankenstein ever did, although I'm not sure that was Shelley's intent. It is in this scene, I think, that the monster takes on the dimension of a tragic hero -- Milton's Satan, again -- which perhaps is explanation enough for his having been mythologized since his creation. (A more contemporary parallel is Godzilla, who also has a tragic dimension and who also has become part of our contemporary mythology, which just goes to show that myths come from the strangest places.)

Mary Shelley has never been considered a brilliant stylist, and this is a novel from the early nineteenth century -- think of Jane Austen without the delicious wickedness. Shelley's style is very direct and by the standards of her time fairly unadorned, but it is talky -- it's an idea book, not an action thriller (which might give some insight as to why screen adaptations tend to come out as they have). Nevertheless, it is one of those rare novels that hit what I call "mythic resonance." The story itself is merely the top layer in a wealth of traditions and associations that make it a much deeper and richer story than one might at first suspect.

Given the circumstances of its acquisition, I was perhaps more pleased with this edition than I had any right to be, including as it does Johnson's intelligent and clear introduction and Shelley's mature text. The luck of the draw, indeed.

[Robert M. Tilendis]